Friday, January 4, 2013

The Complex Subjectivity of Food

What is good food?

To be fair, the answer to this question is entirely dependent upon who you ask. His or her opinion may be informed by any number of things, from simple preference of taste (either you like cinnamon or you don't) to deep-seeded memories and emotions (imagine the smell of grandma's cookies baking); even subconscious tendencies placed by advertising can affect what you eat, making the above question one that is easy to answer, but often difficult to agree on.

The past five years that I have spent living in San Francisco have been incredibly fulfilling, due in large part to the fact that my life has become one seen through a lens of food. I am one of the fortunate people who gets to earn his living doing what he loves, and for me, this means that I spend roughly ninety percent of my time doing something involving food: eating it, thinking about it, cooking it, writing about it, eating it, shopping for it, reading about it, talking about it, eating it... suffice it to say, it's a huge part of my life. Moreover, I live in the Bay Area, unquestionably one of the best places on earth for someone in love with all things gastronomic.

just another day in the shire... or Napa.
Unfortunately, this makes it very easy to lose touch with food outside of the Bay Area bubble. The last thing I would ever want to become is a food snob (hence my distaste for the word 'foodie' and what it conjures) and from grilled squab to grilled cheese, from frog legs to buffalo wings, I stand by the fact that flavor is what counts. If it's delicious, it's delicious, regardless of whether it's 'house-made,' 'organic,' 'locally sourced,' or whichever label ends up letting someone charge an extra buck for it. But living here does expose me to some of the best food there is; the general demand is simply so high that the best has become the norm. It's actually easier and, believe it or not, cheaper to buy your produce at the corner store up the street than at Safeway, and it also might happen to be some of the most flavor-exploding, delicious produce you'll ever eat. It practically rains cherries in SF during the summer months, an unjustifiable bounty of sweet, ruby red drops of sunshine, everywhere you look, fresher only if you'd shook the tree yourself and let them shower down around you. Needless to say, it's easy to get carried away.

I recently spent the holidays on a ten-day pilgrimage up and down the east coast, visiting my own mini-diaspora of friends and family scattered among its cities and states. Unavoidably, much of the trip was spent through the aforementioned lens of food, and as I cooked, ate, ordered, and observed, I gained a new bit of perspective as both a chef and a human. My first few days back east were spent in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, once the epitome of a small town beach community. These days, Rehoboth has inevitably exploded in beach-town tourism, rife with slogan-bearing t-shirt shops and spots to get the sickest henna tatoo ever! What has remained of its original small town charm is largely represented by its food. As the town and the crowds have changed, the very best spots to eat have remained constant, though many have grown or expanded.

respect the spiral.
Cashing in on growing numbers while retaining long-time regulars, most of these eateries have preserved their "orginial recipe," or some equivalent promise to stay the same as you always remember. This makes them the place to go when you're craving a cheesy slice of childhood or a sweet, creamy scoop of nostalgia: the very apex of comfort food. I have been eating at these ice cream shops, pizza parlors (when they were still referred to as such), and french fry stands for over 30 years, and they, quite predictably, remain some of my favorite eats on the planet, surpassing pinchos in San Sebastian or even pizza in Rome. I can objectively say that Grotto Pizza is not the best pizza I have ever eaten; but I must subjectively declare that it is the best pizza I have ever eaten or will ever eat, and I will defend it to the death. The same, or close to it, goes for Thrasher's french fries and Kohr's ice cream, or my mom's gravy and stuffing for that matter. In the quest to define 'good food,' we can indubitably say that good food makes you feel good.

After Rehoboth, I headed to a friend's lodge in the Poconos Mountains for a weekend with college buddies, and upon arriving we headed to the supermarket to buy some groceries for the weekend. Offering to cook dinner, I picked up a few Ribeyes, some Russet potatoes, and some kale. The fresh kale at the market was mostly thick, woody stem with sad, sparse clumps of leaves, a far cry from the kale I have been spoiled with, living just a short drive from the best farming conditions in the country. I'm lucky to live where I do, and as I stood there in snow-covered, central Pennsylvania, holding the sad, sickly kale in my hand, I recalled that I hadn't even been aware of kale when I lived on the east coast. I realize I may have been taking for granted that something as simple as gorgeous kale (and several varieties thereof) is readily available in great bounty just down the street from me. I resolved to never stop appreciating local California produce, then  grabbed the bagged stuff, which was leafy and cheap, along with a head of garlic.

kale: alien menace or tasty side dish?

I seared the thick, well-marbled steaks with little more than salt and pepper, while the Russets got cut into large steak fries, seasoned and tossed with some rosemary, then roasted until crispy and browned. As I prepared the kale, I noticed predictably leery looks from the dudes around the room. Considering one suggestion for dinner from the present crowd had been to "just grab some chips," I knew that voluntarily eating a green vegetable would take a little bit of coaxing. After all, this was a dude's trip, all about booze and cigars and destroying our bodies! But with a little garlic and a lot of reassurance, everyone got a little kale on their plate, and some even went up for seconds. Success.

I don't think my friends fully grasped how happy it made me to feed them good, wholesome, simple food (the entire meal was eight ingredients, including the olive oil, salt, and pepper), to actually nourish them, and to be the force that brought everyone together around the dinner table. Being friends with a great many chefs, cooking often turns into a chance to showcase all your skill and flair and expertise, swooshing plates with puree and drizzling reductions to impress and dazzle. But among people for whom food is not a career or a particular passion, for people who just want to eat, it's important to remember what defines good food in its simplest terms: it's tasty and it's nourishing. The following night we had ribs, burgers, and wings at the Poconos' local brewery, another humble reminder that the west coast holds no monopolies on deliciousness.

My next stop was New York, for dinner with family in Brooklyn at Reynard's (an old Waterbar friend had left SF about a year ago to take a pastry sous position there, so I knew dessert was going to be deadly). Brooklyn has become an American food mecca in its own right: with hipsters galore, it has cultivated a slightly more DIY restaurant scene than Manhattan (much like Oakland versus SF), though no less trend-setting; this often means time, energy, and money are focused more on the food than on the linen service. If you're a food lover, that's a very good thing.

what the  *@^#  is a sunchoke?  
Reynard's is a farm-to-table operation, a concept very en vogue at the present. Expectedly, I could see that certain bits of the menu would be a bit daunting here and there, with items like Cobia, salsify, and sunchoke eliciting obvious question marks from some; fortunately, we are not a family of shy eaters (neither the Clamages nor the Gnalls), and with minimal reassurance and guidance from me, we navigated with ease and ordered quite skillfully if I do say so myself. We started with rabbit rillette for the table to share, which, for some, was the first foray into eating bunny. Very delicious, its rich, gamey flavor was complemented by whole grain mustard and accompanied by perfectly grilled levain. Daron ordered the oyster toast with beef and cream, which turned out to be the star of the apps. The smoked Caesar dressing on warm bitter greens was different and familiar at the same time, a clever and simple flourish on a tasty, comforting favorite. Daron, hitting another one out of the park, went with duck breast and chestnut bread pudding for his entree: it was a show stealer as well, like Christmas had put on a sexy dress and gotten even yummier.

Desi came out with our parade of desserts, giving us the rundown: there was a luscious, airy beet and chocolate cake topped with candied beet chips; a simple yogurt pot de creme was served with a shortbread cookie laid across its rim, perfect little slices of persimmon fanned out upon it. There was an apple cake with ginger and creme anglaise, sweet and aromatic, and another dense, rich chocolate cake accompanied by a scoop of olive oil ice cream. The table descended upon the desserts as they were placed before us, turning the table into a veritable carousel of plates and bowls, traveling around to each one of us, our spoons scraping sauce and plunging into moist cake. Each dessert was relatively simple and understated in appearance, but delicious and beautifully executed in every bite. As I sat back and surveyed the table, I reveled in the post-meal minutiae that are signs of a good feast: napkins stained with a spectrum of sauces and colors, glasses holding their last sip of wine, plates with little more than crumbs and lines drawn through the sauce where forks had strained for one last taste. Delicious, satisfying, comforting: the meal was all these things; but the fact that it took people a little outside of their comfort zone, and showed them something new, takes it a step further. Good food, at its best, doesn't just nourish you; it enriches you.

I could observe and deduce and wax poetic for hours on this question; it wouldn't bring us any closer to an answer of what makes food 'good.' In all truth I could meet someone tomorrow who throws up from Grotto pizza and despises smoked Caesar salad and is allergic to kale. I would probably want to punch that person in the face, as a matter of fact. But I could contain my rage as long as this person had a favorite food, one that made his eyes close dreamily and a smile spread across his face as he imagined it: macaroni and cheese, lamb chops, gravy fries, chocolate milkshake, deviled eggs, corn on the cob... whatever it is that lights up your palate, I think everyone can agree that good food is good.